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Two Talks on Immanence

by Tejananda

You searched for SANGHARAKSHITA

... been plenty of
people around who had been ‘sparked’ by others whose ‘sparking’ ultimately went back
to the Buddha. But by this time there had also come into being the hosts of the ‘religious
professionals’ – those who always appear when a free lunch is in the offing. These, in
case you haven’t guessed, would be the aforementioned careerist monks. Now, before
anyone objects, I’m not suggesting that all monks were by nature conniving or insincere
– this isn’t an anti-monastic diatribe.

Let me drop the semi-jest and make the point – I think that it’s a pretty universal
phenomenon that ‘living’ lineages of awakening quickly stultify into religions, complete
with hierarchies, officers, religious professionals, dogmas and so on. It should be no
surprise that this happens – it’s just human nature. When one’s livelihood depends upon a
religious vocation (and I’m treading on rather thin ice here!) there is a strong tendency to
make sure that that livelihood is secure.

I realise that I’m dealing with complex historical issues very sweepingly here. But
anyway, the general drift of my speculation is that in time the ‘professionals’ soon mainly
became settled monastics, living in increasingly large and expensive-to-maintain
monasteries, even monastic universities. Consequently there would have been little need
for encouragement to (over-) emphasise the ‘gradual’ approach at the expense of the
‘sudden’ or direct approach. So the scenario that I’m imagining, is that while the lineage
of ‘sudden’ awakening continued (both in and out of the monastic sangha, naturally) the
recorded Dharma – reflecting the outlook of the religious professionals, the settled
monastics – would have naturally tended to emphasise the more ‘gradual’ elements of the
Buddha’s teaching. In this context, I’d speculate, the Buddha’s ‘gradual’ teachings would
not only have been passed on, but also expanded.

Now, it has been observed that the conceptual basis of Dharma is very simple indeed.
Sangharakshita has observed that the whole Dharma could be boiled down to
‘impermanence’. In this, everything else that is essential to ‘know’ is implicit: the other
laksanas – unsatisfactoriness, not-self. Conditioned arising elaborates and systematises
the notion of impermanence. Sunyata is essentially another angle on not-self.

Conceptually, you don’t actually need any more than that – maybe just add the skandhas
– and as the teaching to Bahiya shows, in the hands of the Buddha, or another awakened
one, you don’t even need that.

However, from the point of view of Buddhist history, the whole industry of commentary
and sub-commentary and sub-sub commentary, and so on got into swing, together with
the creation of new projects such as the abhidharma. And commentaries to the
abhidharma, and ‘64,000’ different sorts of sunyata, and the monastic institutions to
support all this fervent activity. And the administration and maintenance of the monastic
institutions ... and so on. This became ‘mainstream Buddhism’ – and in my view, a very
great deal of it has little or nothing directly to do with awakening.

It’s as if huge numbers of Buddhists throughout history have been fervently involved in
what to me seems to virtually amount to mere displacement activity – that is, putting off,
postponing, getting away from the one thing that the Dharma is actually about:

Actually, the arising of new directions within Buddhism broadly seem to have been of
two main sorts: directions which re-assert the essence of the Dharma as awakening NOW
(i.e. in this very life – though quite possibly now) and directions which as far as I’m
concerned virtually seem to make a cosmological principle out of displacement activity.

By which (latter) I mean, for example, certain tendencies within the mahayana in which
awakening is effectively put off forever while endless worthy and even magnificent but
essentially mundane qualities are developed.

I probably should say more about this to justify what I’m speculating but, as some of you
might well be thinking, I could well be accused of indulging in displacement activity
myself, as I need to be telling you how the immanence model works out as practice. But I
just want to say one more thing in relation to what I’ve just been saying. I think that the
tendencies that I’m talking about are not without relevance to ourselves.

There seems to be a fairly general perception in the Order and movement at the moment
that things seem much more fluid and open to new possibilities than before – which as far
as I’m concerned is excellent.

In particular, it’s great and very encouraging to see far more discussion and practice in
the Order recently directly related to insight / awakening – but I do feel we need to keep
coming back to one question again and again, in relation to ourselves, our Order, our
institutions, whatever, bearing in mind the ‘displacement activity’ possibility that I’ve
just mentioned. The question is: what has this got to do with Awakening?

I know that it can be argued that it all has, ultimately. But to me some of our very
prominent collective concerns seem – let’s say – rather tangential to this. I could mention
several, but one major ‘issue’ that I personally think we do have a collective over-
concern with is ordination, in the sense of the institution of ordination, getting ordained,
and getting others ordained, as distinct from the central objective of our going for refuge,
which is awakening itself. I wonder sometimes whether we might be tending to go for
refuge to ordination rather than to awakening (as embodied by the Three Jewels).

I’d personally like to see ordination in itself and everything to do with the ‘ordination
process’ becoming far less prominent in our collective consciousness and activity, and
much less distinction being made on the basis of the difference between being an Order
member and not being one. I’d like to see us becoming far more clearly a united
community in which all are orientated towards insight and awakening, in everyday life
and practice. [More about this in my thread in May Shabda, which has also appeared in
MahaSangha and F/WBO.] It’s a matter of redressing the balance. Ultimately, what we
all need, I believe, is not large and well–regulated institutions, but a lineage of
Obviously, I’m making a generalisation here – so please don’t anyone take it personally!

3. Back to immanence

So to my mind there is at least a link between immanence ‘approaches’ and the lineage of
living Dharma – awakening – which is directly ‘communicated’ from teacher (guru) to
disciple. But just to make it clear, I’m not trying to make a crude correlation such as
‘sudden approach GOOD’ - ‘gradual / bhavana approach BAD.’ Both are orientations
towards awakening. All approaches are liable to literalism and even misuse. Nothing in
the Dharma-as-teaching is ‘failsafe’. If there have been ‘careerist monks’, there have
undoubtedly been ‘fake gurus’ as well.

But I stick to my point that there is a great deal in Buddhism – even the recorded Dharma
– which is only very indirectly related to the issue of awakening, if, indeed, it’s related at
all. Anyway, I’ll leave that for people to argue with me about later and get back to
immanence (not that we ever left it)! So as I’ve said, the main approaches to ‘practical
immanence’ as we might call it are developments such as Ch’an/Zen, Mahamudra and
Dzogchen. What I intend to do isn’t to outline these systems or schools – there isn’t time
and you can easily get that from books. What I’m going to do is to outline the approach
to pure awareness as an ‘immanentalist’ practice (or non-practice) that I’ve personally
been taking and teaching on ‘entering pure awareness’ retreats at Vajraloka – mainly with
reference to Zen and Dzogchen teachings.

I hope that this will give a brief overview of the territory.

As I’ve already pointed out, what I’m calling ‘pure awareness’ is synonymous with terms
like Buddha nature, the nature of mind or ‘mind itself’ (sems nyid), intrinsic awareness
(rigpa), naked awareness, the basic space of phenomena, dharmakaya, mahamudra, and
many others. So first, it should already be obvious that pure awareness is not a practice –
it’s not a meditation method and not something that can be developed or cultivated in the
way that we develop or cultivate mindfulness and metta, or even insight.

We can’t develop pure awareness because it’s ‘here’ already - fully and perfectly. It can’t
not be here. Pure awareness is what we truly are – it’s the true nature of everything. At
the same time, pure awareness is just awareness – awareness that in itself is ‘pure’ of
subject-object and ‘pure’ of ‘self-view’ – and that’s all there is: everything arises and
passes away as spontaneous manifestation within this awareness. ...

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